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Advocacy, policy draw Flores to Capitol Hill

Ted Kennedy Jr. and Kenia Flores
Kenia Flores ’20 and Ted Kennedy Jr., board chairman of the American Association of People with Disabilities, at an event celebrating the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Kenia Flores ’20 got the feeling every time she walked into work at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a feeling of awe and passion and inspiration,” she said.

Flores recently completed her second internship for U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina. In the summer of 2018, she worked in his district office in Charlotte, her hometown. This summer she spent a month in his Washington, D.C., office.

“This is where I belong. This is what I’m meant to do,” she said.

Senator Tillis and Kenia Flores
Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Kenia Flores ’20 in the senator’s Capitol Hill office.

Flores had her first taste of Washington as a high school senior, when she traveled with the National Federation of the Blind for the organization’s annual advocacy seminar. She’s been drawn to Capitol Hill ever since.

While she doesn’t think her future will focus exclusively on disability policy, “it definitely influences how I view other policy areas,” she said. “It’s definitely given me a unique lens to see things.”

Flores has been blind since birth and laughs as she reflects on what she just said.

Her adviser, David Fleming, associate professor of politics and international affairs, said others notice her blindness first, but it’s never their final impression.

“She’s fearless,” Fleming said. “I think she’s exposed a lot of us, including me, to a lot of the possibilities and issues that people with disabilities face.”

Flores, who is double majoring in politics and international affairs and history, plans to work for a few years after graduation before applying to law school.

Flores had her first extended stay in the capital the spring semester of her sophomore year as part of Furman’s Washington Experience. She interned then with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which administers and enforces anti-discrimination laws in the workplace.

She returned to North Carolina after that semester to intern in Tillis’ district office — and fell in love with the work. Flores said state offices focus on case work, assisting constituents with everything from Social Security issues to expedited passports, while the D.C. office focuses on policy.

But she spent much of her time taking calls from constituents.

“Sometimes it’s hard,” Flores admitted. “People will yell at you.”

But she believes every person has a right to be heard — those who voted for Tillis and those who didn’t.

“I really want people to still believe in the democratic process,” she said.

Elizabeth Edwards, regional director of constituent advocacy in the Charlotte office, called her “phenomenal.”

“I really relied on her last year,” Edwards said.

When she learned Flores was applying for a second internship, she told the D.C. office, “We have to have her.”

Flores, who focused on education and immigration, attended hearings and briefings and worked with legislative correspondents to develop memos on legislative proposals.

And she took advocacy opportunities as they came. For instance, she introduced a social media specialist in Tillis’ office to “alt text,” the written descriptions that can be included with online images.

The staffer didn’t know about the option but shared it with a GOP social media group. Now other Senate offices are planning to use alt text in their social media.

“I just want it to be accessible for me and for other people,” Flores said. “It’s small details like that that really matter to me.”

She finished her work for Tillis in early August. But she’s only begun her story in the city.

“It definitely affirmed that D.C. is the place for me,” said Flores.

 

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